It's official. Books are still rad. And the people who provide a venue for the authors and book-sellers that stilll believe in the power of the book are still rad. That's why the Sonoma County Book Festival received a Boho Award in 2011, and that's why it would be nice to keep the only major book festival in the county around for years to come. Like pretty much everyone else these days, they've turned to crowdfunding for help.
Today, the organizers announced the beginning of a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign to keep the festival running and fund an Executive Director to run the whole shabang, since its hard for volunteers to pull of something like this off. This year, the festival moves to Santa Rosa Junior College, instead of running through downtown Santa Rosa, like it has for the past 12 years each September.
From the Kickstarter page:
"The Sonoma County Book Festival has been celebrating books and authors and readers and our local community for the past 12 years each September, and it's been a glorious contribution to Sonoma County. What you may not know is that we've done it on a wing and a prayer. And at this juncture, our funds are low and our volunteers are tired. As the board of directors, we've had to ask ourselves, "Do we stop offering this incredible community celebration of books and literacy?" The answer came back as a loud, "Heck no!" The Festival and our community deserve more. In fact, we believe we can make the Festival even better for 2013."
In just one day, reports Vicki D'Armon from Copperfield's Books—sponsor of the event—roughly a quarter of the tickets are already gone. "I think I'll probably have them through next week," says D'Armon.
Gaiman is no stranger to local readers. I mean really—American Gods, Anansi Boys, Coraline? The Sandman? (To the uninitiated: Gaiman wrote a children's book. He called it The Graveyard Book. That about sums it up.)
He's also committed to his fans at a level that's pretty unusual for authors of his stature. After the reading and Q&A, D'Armon reports, "he says he'll stay until 4am to sign books."
$35 gets you into the event and a copy of Gaiman's newest, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. If you want to go with a friend and share the book, special $50 tickets allow two entries and one copy of the book.
While available, tickets are being sold at Copperfield's stores. You can also get them online here.
Eli Horowitz was interviewed last week over at Other People With Brad Listi. This is one of my favorite literary podcasts. Hosted by Brad Listi, founder and publisher of The Nervous Breakdown, at its best, the show sheds insight into the creative process and lives of writers and editors who fall between the traditional margins of literature. The interview with Horowitz should be a good one!
Confession: I didn't read Fifty Shades of Grey, and don't plan on ever cracking its lightly illicit cover unless I'm somehow engaged in some sort of Guantanamo-styled book torture. I'm a bit like Josh Radnor's character in Liberal Arts when he berates Elizabeth Olsen for reading the entirety of the Twilight series "unironically": "With the many amazing books in the world, why would you read this?"
That said, here's a list of books that I loved in 2012. Mention these to me at a cocktail party and you'll certainly get a smile instead of a tongue-lashing.
1. A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins
Hutchins' story of a man who struggles with intimacy after a divorce (and working on a project that involves his dead father's diaries and a computer) became one of my "can't put it down" books for 2012. It's always great to be surprised by a book's elegance and depth.
2. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Here is the one place I crossed paths with Sonoma County readers. Cheryl Strayed's memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a way to exorcise ghost and demons was one of the best-written books of the year. Masterful, devastating and inspiring, all at once.
3. Violence Girl by Alice Bag
Bag is one of the L.A. punk originals. Her autobiography is raw, contagious and burning with feminist power. At the same time, the musician and artist doesn't glorify the end results of punk rock and its many casualties.
4. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
It was a big year for the Dominican-American author. He won a MacArthur Genius grant, published an acclaimed collection of short stories, and made an appearance at Copperfields in Montgomery Village that included liberal use of the words "motherfucker" and "fuck" and "interlocuter." This collection is riveting and ragged; it captures the dilemma of masculinity and the failure inherent in the blind drive to "man up" even as the world around crumbles and decays.
5. The Danger of Proximal Alphabets by Kathleen Alcott
Alcott is a young writer, but you wouldn't know it from this gripping, beautifully written debut novel. The Petaluma native, who now lives in New York, writes with the confidence of someone who's been fine-tuning her work for a long while. The book is a fractured love story, a story that falls into lyricism more often that not, and one that flirts constantly with a sense of the tragic.
6. How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti
Warning: this book is not for everyone, and if you read it and hate it, please don't stop me in the street and berate me for recommending something to you that you hated. Some (like Gawker, which called her one of the 50 Least Important Writers of 2012) have labeled Heti's "novel" of artists living in modern-day Toronto as self-indulgent and navel-gazing. And it is! But Heti happens to have a navel that I find very interesting! I found this book to be brave and painful in the best possible way.
The World Without You, the new novel by New York-based writer Joshua Henkin, opens with a big event. After 42 years of marriage and four children, upper-middle class New York couple Marilyn and David Frankel are separating. The separation will occur soon after the memorial for their son Leo, a journalist who was killed in Iraq one year previous. Marilyn hasn't been able to get over Leo's death, "Sometimes she feels like she could die, that she'd like to die, it would be better that way," Henkin writes in the prologue. While her husband drowns his sorrows in running, reading and classes on the proper way to cut vegetables, Marilyn channels her energy into writing anti-war op-eds with the fervor of someone fruitlessly trying to bring back the dead. But before the separation, the couple will host their three surviving children, plus various grandchildren and spouses, and their daughter-in law (Leo's wife) Thisbe who brings their three year-old grandchild Calder, at the family's vacation home in the Berkshires. The family is getting together, possibly for the last time as a unit, for Leo's one-year memorial, which happens to fall on 4th of July. It's an occasion that most of them approach with dread, especially Thisbe, who has a new boyfriend in Berkeley, and doesn't know how to break the news to her in-laws.
In a review on The Rumpus, Bezalel Stern called the novel, "that rare breed: the twenty-first century domestic novel," which is exactly right. By digging into the inner lives of all three daughters: the tempestous Noelle, now an Orthodox Jew living in Israel with her headstrong husband and four children, Clarissa—the eldest—whose life, at 39, has become consumed with trying to conceive a baby, and Lily, the middle daughter with unresolved anger issues towards just about everyone. The combination of characters is like a pressure keg about to burst with the combustible combination of family resentment and love; It's a tightrope act performed amongst the land mines brought about by the death of a beloved youngest child and brother. The character's are drawn with fine detail and empathy, and even the generally unlikable Noelle has her moments, enough to where I didn't end up hating her even when I wanted to. Just like in life, everything's complicated by the messy, complex, reality of being a human in a world where true human psychological binaries are nothing but a myth.
Joshua Henkin reads from The World Without You on Friday, July 13 at Book Passage. 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 1pm. Free. 415. 927.0960.
Whip out those Pilot G-2s and Mead notebooks, folks, 'cause it's that time of year again. Yes, indeed, the Bohemian's annual Jive writing contest is upon us. Here's your chance to get published in the paper by just using your imaginative brain and employing a keen handle on the English language.
For this year’s writing contest, we ask you, the creatively-minded writer, to siphon inspiration from one, several or all of the four objects below. Where did they come from? Why are they important? Why has someone held onto them for so long?
In your story, the item can be shipped, thrown, drowned, eaten, buried, cooked, uploaded, smuggled, smashed, or simply sitting on the mantle. We’ll be looking for creative ways the object is interwoven into your story, from the subtle to the overt.
Send us your 500-words-or-less piece of fiction to us at: email@example.com. We’ll pick five of our favorites for publication in our Oct. 20 Fall Lit issue and throw a writers' party afterward at Cafe Azul in downtown Santa Rosa on Oct. 20 at 5:30pm. Deadline for submissions is Friday, Oct. 15, at 5pm.
The objects of your inspiration are pictured below.The Girl:
Have at it, and best of luck to all!
To true Lit Nerd Geeks, Wednesday, June 16, is no ordinary day. Rather, it's Bloomsday, named for that warm 1904 Thursday during which Leopold Bloom wandered the city of Dublin, Ireland, and—not incidentally—explicated the entire history of Western literature while wooing wife-to-be Molly Barnacle and just generally standing in for the ancient hero Odysseus.
If you've read James Joyce's 1922 masterpiece Ulysses, you yourself embarked on a mythic journey. Most find it impossible to understand the novel without some help; I couldn't have finished a page without a nearby professor. But having emerged triumphant at the book's close, one feels a lifetime affinity to this modernist classic. Not only is this 18-part story Leopold's/Odysseus' achievement, it is one's own.
And so, when our weekly publication date this year fell on Bloomsday, we fell upon the opportunity. From the Letters to the folios (where the dates are on the bottom of each page) to a pull quote, a caption, several calendar and dining capsules, sky box text, the movie page and more than one classified ad, our June 16, 2010 issue is studded with text taken straight from Ulysses. Eighteen pieces of text, in fact. Naturally, we need to host a contest.To wit: Those three readers who can name the most (we'd be in Lit Nerd Geek Heaven if someone gets all 18 but aren't counting on it) citations sneaked into this issue will win a Toad in the Hole Pub gift card. (Yes, we know that the Toad is an English pub and that Dubliners were steeped in The Troubles with England for centuries, but it's what we've got.) Contact us either through Facebook or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org by Wednesday, June 30, to win.
While compiling our small fun for this week's issue, we stumbled upon a more sustained bit of fun, Ulysses Seen, a complete graphic novel depiction of Joyce's masterpiece that is amazingly meta, allowing for critical citations and reader discussion forums as well as links to such YouTube pleasures as the sound of an actual Latin mass (which words begin the first chapter), so that readers get an even deeper understanding of the tome. If only this had been around when we were in grad school! This week, Apple approved Ulysses Seen as a new app for the iPad, which might make acing this contest that much easier.
Thanks to copyeditor Gary Brandt, a Joyce fanatic if ever there was one (he even has the last word of Finnegan's Wake tattooed on his ankle) who chose the excerpts and directed the placement. His love for Ulysses more than forgives his strange yen for prog rock.
While working on my article about the Schulz Museum in this week's Bohemian, I had occasion to sit down with two excellent cartoonists, Trevor Alixopolus and Alexis Fajardo. I was there, ostensibly, to ask them questions about the museum’s guest cartoonist program; but as you’ll read below, what unfolded instead was a freewheeling chat between the two artists about the comics industry at large, the artists’ distinct working methods, the public misunderstanding of comics, the magic of working with ink and paper, and the plague of the Comic Book Store Guy on The Simpsons.
The interview took place inside of Charles Schulz’s old studio at 1 Snoopy Place, where Schulz drew Peanuts every day for over 30 years. We could still see the indentation on the wood-paneled wall where the back of Schulz’s chair left a daily mark. His crow quill pen and inkwell sat nearby, and all of his books were left intact on the shelf. It was a perfect place to sit and talk about comics.
The conversation is long, but I was fascinated by the amount of common ground shared by what are two very different cartoonists. Fajardo’s series, Kid Beowulf, is a cleverly historic prequel to the famous Beuwolf story, full of swords and kings and dragons, whereas Alixopulos’ latest, The Hot Breath of War, is a surreal rumination on modern society, involving cell phones, nightclubs and one-night stands. They’re both fantastic, and I thank both Trevor and Alexis for sitting down and being so open about their work.
The conversation starts below.Q: So how did you guys get into drawing comics?
AF: I’ve always been a huge fan of comics since I was a kid. My dad actually gave me a ratty, torn edition of a Pogo collection, and I remember—I may have been 6 or 7 at the time—loving the artwork, but having no idea what the comic was about. Because Walt Kelly, he was doing political stuff, he was talking about McCarthyism—stuff that was just way over a 7-year-old’s head. But artistically, it was gorgeous to look at. So I would just pore over it, and look at it for days. I just loved it.
Q: How old were you when you first started drawing comics?
AF: Well, I’d always been drawing. I’d draw Charlie Brown, and one of my first characters was actually just an upside-down Snoopy head. The form of comics came later, but I was always drawing cartoon characters, and being immersed in the world was part of my upbringing. There are basically three books, I remember, crystallized moments in my life where these books, it’s gonna sound corny, like, “spoke to me” or whatever, but I saw the artwork and I wanted to emulate it. The first was Pogo. Years later, a friend of the family gave me Asterix, which is a great French comic, sort of an adventure-based historical about this small French Gaulish warrior named Asterix who fights the Roman Legions. When I describe my own work, I say, “If you like Asterix...” And then the third book that made an impact on me was Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight. That was the first graphic novel I ever read—with superheroes, but the tone and the quality and the storytelling was just so much more adult. It was exciting to know that you could actually do that with something like Batman; prior to that, it was just Adam West for me, and the corniness of it. So if you were to distill my work, those would be the three primary influences, and what I’m basically trying to do with my own stuff: lush artwork, and a fun adventure story, but also that whole other layer of compelling storytelling with adult themes. And also trying to make it accessible for people.
Q: What about you, Trevor?
TA: I guess I’ve always been drawing. There’s some similarities—my dad probably had some comics, and my parents would pick up comics at garage sales and bring them home. I was a big reader of books, and I’d read comics too. I started reading kid’s comics, and superhero comics, and The Adventures of Tintin—which is another French adventure comic—and I started to try to recreate my own. I don’t know that I was ever really that into being a cartoonist until I was in my teens, and I started outgrowing superhero comics.
AF: That’s when it gets ramped up, actually.
Q: Like when you don’t read Marvel and DC comics anymore?
TA: Yeah, you start reading stuff that speaks to you more personally. I started discovering a lot of comics from the ’80s—there was a lot of artistic ferment in the ’80s, as far as comics went. There was Love & Rockets, and the Hernandez Brothers, who would do comics with elements of surreality and fantasy in them, but they were mostly everyday stories about villages in Central America, or Mexican punk rockers in L.A. So I started to lose interest in doing superhero comics and started to discover that there was this whole realm of self-published and small press things, and zines and mini-comics, coinciding with the early ’90s zine explosion—you could just do your own thing and print ‘em up. That inspired me.
Q: Some of your first books were basically photocopied zines.
TA: Yeah, yeah.
Q: Did you ever photocopy things on your own, Lex?
AF: Oh, yeah, I was a do-it-yourselfer for a good long while, and self-published my stuff. I also had a comic strip for a long while that I would force into any school paper that I was part of, in college. So you find a way to insinuate yourself into print media, whether you do it yourself or you force comics in. I think that’s one thing about cartoonists, is we’re always trying to get our work out there.
TA: Yeah, throwing it out there, and seeing what’ll stick. I think the whole time I was making handmade books, I was also trying to get any kind of venue to print them besides me.Q: Do either of you have a classic rejection letter that was just brutal?
AF: I have a ton from syndicates.
TA: That’s a good way to get a lot of rejection letters.
AF: Yeah, after college, I took my college strip and would do monthly submissions to King Features, and United, and Creators, all the big ones. And you send them out, and maybe nine weeks later, if you’re lucky, you’ll get back the very thin envelope with the rejection slip. I actually sent some work, back in my old hometown of Binghamton, NY, that’s where Johnny Hart lived, who was the creator of B.C., and I gave him some early stuff to look at. He took the time to send back a letter, which was nice of him, but he totally demolished the strip.
Q: He personally wrote you a letter?
AF: Yeah, yeah, and he just derided everything I was doing. And actually, it was kind of the state of comics at that time. He was digging into Cathy, and the new art comics.
Q: He was a freaky super-religious conservative guy, right?
AF: Yeah, he had that bent that he definitely brought into his comics…
TA: He was sort of a caveman himself.
AF: …and my strip was kind of a Bloom County political knockoff, so we did not see eye-to-eye politically. But beyond that, I think he was more offended artistically than anything. And my early stuff, part of me doesn’t blame him. He had some salient points that he was getting at. To my mind at the time, I just didn’t think he knew what he was talking about. Ten years later, I know exactly what he was talking about, and I can see it.
Q: Have you ever had an interaction with a famous cartoonist, Trevor?
TA: Not really. I remember going to a Marvel guy at a convention, ‘cause there wasn’t much of a line there, and having him look at my stuff. And he laid into it. It was more upsetting because it was such a canned speech. He clearly wasn’t happy to be there, and it was this pat thing about “You need to learn to draw from life. Don’t just look at superhero comics.” I wasn’t even showing him superhero comics! He was talking to somebody that wasn’t even there. That’s when I had the turning point that this wasn’t the world I wanted to work in. I like all comics, but I don’t want to do comics that a dwindling number of people are into—superhero comics that nobody else can really understand.
AF: That’s my main criticism with the American comic scene. It’s so heavy on superheroes, which is what they call “mainstream,” but if you look at the rest of the world of comics, superheroes are such a small niche compartment. It’s fascinating, ‘cause I was listening to this podcast the other day, called iFanboy, done by three comics readers—they’re not creators, they’re fans. All superhero stuff. One of the hosts was talking about how he lives in San Francisco, and how there really aren’t many pro cartoonists there. In his mind, “pro” equals someone like Jim Lee or Frank Miller. And I’m sitting there listening, and it just boggled my mind that this guy really has no idea of the wealth of cartoonists that are out here that don’t do the mainstream superhero comic book stuff. They’re doing their own thing.
TA: When I was on my way here, I was thinking about what kind of questions you might ask us, and I was thinking about if we’d seen each other’s books before. I know I’ve seen Kid Beowulf before, which is almost a sign of the diversity of comics that that’s the case. There’s so much of a variety out there. When I was first reading comics, it was so narrow in American comics that anything different was a big deal. Like with Love & Rockets…
Q: I remember how crazy people were about Love & Rockets.
TA: Yeah, they were like, “This is about a girl who’s a mechanic. She doesn’t have any superpowers. She’s just this punk rocker who’s a mechanic.” And it’s like, you can do a comic like that? But now it’s wide enough that you can have a cartoony historical mythological comic, and you can have comics that are more surreal. There’s all kinds of little niches.Q: One question I want to ask is: How much did the comic book store guy on The Simpsons change the public’s perception of comics?
AF: I don’t know if it changed it. I think it reinforced it. Because it’s really not too far from the truth for more of the traditional, dungeon-esque comic book shops of the ’80s that are still here and there—like Outer Planes, in Santa Rosa, would probably fit that mold. There’s one in San Francisco called Isotope, which is more of a boutique kind of lounge.
TA: Very mod looking.
AF: Yeah, the owner of that is very progressive, and he brings hipness into the reading of comics and the placement of them. But you’re always gonna find the guy with the ponytail who’s talking about Green Lantern.
TA: I have heard—I didn’t hear this from Matt Groening himself, but I heard from people who heard this from Matt Groening—that the comic book store guy was based on this guy Rory Root, who ran Comic Relief, which is a great comic book store in Berkeley.
AF: I could totally see that! He was like, the guru.
TA: It’s a great store, and he ran everything, he’d carry anything and everything. And his personality was just like that. He was persnickety, he talked in the same way, and he was a big guy. I don’t know whether it was really based on him, but it could very well have been.
AF: I was just there this past weekend, and actually, Rory passed away this last year. But in his defense, I will say that the first time I came to the Bay Area and I did my pilgrimage to Comic Relief—‘cause it’s known across the country as one of the premier outlets…
TA: Yeah, it’s easily one of the Top 5.
AF: …and I showed him my book, and it was really raw at the time, but he gave me really good pointers—and from a salesman’s perspective, too, like what’s gonna move in a shop, which is really, really necessary to hear. So yeah, he was well-loved. But I think physically, he definitely resembled, or vice-versa, the Simpsons guy.Q: When you’re talking with people, at a party or in some sort of social situation, and conversation gets around to “What do you do?” and you say “I’m a cartoonist,” what’s the general reaction?
AF: They’re not as thrilled as I am about that!
AF: I say that, and I expect, like, ‘Oh wow, you’re a cartoonist, that’s kickass!’ A lot of the time it’s just general confusion, or they’re not sure what that means. They think it’s kind of insulting if they call you a cartoonist.
TA: They’re sort of baffled. In days gone by, there was more… there was, like, a movie with Jimmy Stewart in it where he played a cartoonist, in the 40s or 50s. The newspaper cartoonist was sort of a glamorous figure.
AF: Yeah, they were celebrities, back in the day.
TA: But now, people are like, “What does that mean?” Because they look in the paper at the comics, and they’re like, “Do computers do these?” They don’t know the process, and they don’t know that there’s different kinds of comics. So it’s hard, when people ask me. I wanna say that I’m a cartoonist, but it opens the doorway to all these other questions. People are generally intrigued, but confused. And for some reason, yeah, there’s a weird thing where people feel like they’re going to offend you—by asking, “what do you call what you do?” They think that there’s some sort of P.C. thing to say.
Q: Well, I mean, even me! When I’m talking to you, I don’t wanna say “comic books” if what you really do is graphic novels.
AF: I think if you ask any cartoonist “Are you a graphic novelist?”—we’re gonna laugh at that. It’s just a highfalutin’ way that someone in the book industry thought would sound cool.
TA: It’s a marketing term.
AF: It’s a marketing term. We create comics.
Q: But it’s a marketing term that appears to have worked. Even talking to people before I came here tonight, they’d say to me, “Oh, well, graphic novels are really on the rise!” Do you think they say that because of Persepolis or Dark City?
AF: Yeah, they haven’t totally drunk the Kool-Aid, but if you walk into a Barnes & Noble, there is a huge rack of graphic novels. Most of it’s Marvel / DC, a ton of it is manga, but through the cracks you’ll see stuff like Blankets, or you’ll see Bone, or you’ll see more independent stuff. And a lot of that stuff is being brought into schools. 50 years ago, kids were forced to burn their comics because they were thought as these vile, juvenile-delinquent outlets. Now, teachers are dying to get comics into their classroom. It’s gone a total radical shift in 50 years. We’re all better for it, if you ask me.
Q: So it’s going through a lot of changes, because comic strips aren’t as prevalent as they used to be, because newspapers aren’t what they used to be; all these graphic novels are getting made into movies. But would you say that cartooning is still a maligned art form?
AF: It depends where you are. It’s gaining more acceptance here. In Europe and Japan, if you say you’re a cartoonist you’re not going to get that quizzical look you get from somebody stateside. They’re almost like they were back in the ’50s here, they’re celebrities. It’s a really respected art form. This country has, in terms of comics, there’s been a disservice with superhero comics. That’s where the maligned factor comes in, and that’s what we’re trying to break away from.
TA: There’s a public perception that comics are a genre, rather than a medium—that comics have to have these certain story elements. If you like those story elements, then that’s not a slam, but if you don’t, and if you’re not into those, like most people, then it seems kind of juvenile. So there’s that level where they’re maligned, because they’re associated with kind of a weird subgenre. Then there’s also comics that people actually love—newspaper comics. People have always loved newspaper comics. But people who run newspapers seem to have this weird hatred for them. From what I’ve heard about the newspaper industry, about daily strips, over the past 50 years there’s always pressure from newspaper editors and publishers to shrink the comics, to get rid of the comics, to move them around. And they hate that people will turn first to the comics.
Q: You take any comic out of the paper, you get 50 letters to the editor.
TA: It’s like this albatross around their neck.
Q: I wonder if it’s ‘cause the cartoonists don’t actually work in the building.
TA: That’s a good point. It used to be that cartoonists did work in the building. You’d come in, and punch the clock, and sit down next to the guy who did the sports page, and you’d draw your daily strip.Q: What kind of paper do you guys use? Lex, I know you use Bristol board, and Trevor, you use a regular old sketchbook?
TA: Yeah. He does it pretty much the way a lot of people do. I think that’s the way they say you should do it.
AF (opening his book): I’m inking a big part of a battle scene here, I’m pretty jazzed with how it’s turning out. It’s on 11x14 Bristol board. I rule out the paper and the panels, taken from rough thumbnails that I’ve done on a different sheet where the script is, and you can see all the construction lines, because I use blue. It’s just a matter of working the page until you get it right.
Q: I never thought about the rough-draft blue pencil technique until I saw those original panels of Rose is Rose out in the hallway.
AF: I think I have a couple here, some really skeletal positioning of the characters, in blue. I know who these guys are gonna be, because they’re my characters, but to you looking at it, it’s just a loose, sketchy process. From that, I’ll fill it in and do another layer, doing more details. The inking for me is where it all comes together. That’s my favorite part. That’s when the ink just really flows, and you get into the sense of the characters. That’s my favorite part, I relish that part. It couldn’t come sooner. ‘Cause this stuff is painstaking. One page, between writing the script and doing the thumbnail and getting to the final blocking it in, it takes hours upon hours.
TA: And it’s all deferred gratification, because the gratification doesn’t come until you’re actually doing work. I think every cartoonist would rather work in ink whenever they can than work in a blue pencil.
AF: I just don’t have the confidence to go right to ink. That’s why I have to do all these layers and all this prep work. I get too nervous. I don’t think I can pull it off unless I can get a good sense of it in the blue. Then I can have fun with the ink.
Q: I see some of the strips out in the hallway that have a bunch of whiteout all over ‘em, which is amazing to me because ink on whiteout is way, way different than ink on paper. Now Trevor, you don’t really use the blue pencil very much—you’re like, doing the New York Times crossword in pen.
TA: Kind of. Sometimes I’ll use a regular pencil, and then I’ll just erase it. It’s interesting, because when I first started doing comics, I was doing them on Bristol, but what I found was that I was too neurotic about it. I would clinch up. The comics that I would do on these pages would never be as good as the drawings that were actually in my sketchbook.
AF: It was too stiff?
TA: Yeah, it was too stiff. And so I’d get these really nice drawings in my sketchbook, but then I’d say, “Why can’t I draw like that in my comics? Why are my comics so crappy looking?”
Q: Is it maybe because it felt too professional, and there was pressure to get it right?
TA: Yeah, it was performance anxiety, basically. And then I was like, I don’t have to do it this way if it’s not working for me. So I started working directly from my sketchbook, where I’d just draw an image, rip it out, put it on the pile, and then go on to the next page. And then when it was time to put them in a book, I just scan ‘em all, and they get assembled. That worked a lot better for me, because it’s more organic.
AF: That’s what’s really cool about having this conversation, because we have two completely different styles.
Q: You even mentioned blocking out everything beforehand, and you’re sure exactly what’s going to happen in this panel, and this panel, and this panel. But when you have a sketchbook, and your narrative is a little more surreal, you can say, well, this goes with this pretty well…
TA: Yeah, you can make changes on the fly. Definitely, the mode or milieu you’re working in affects what format you’re gonna do. As an example, I did one strip in my book that’s much more of a traditional page strip, and it’s also a traditional war comic. In this case, I made an effort to draw it in that style, with panels. But since a lot of the rest of it is very surreal, I wanted to communicate that. So a lot of the stuff is floating, and there’s no panels, and it’s sort of dream-like. If it’s not rigidly arranged like that, you loosen up, and things don’t have to make sense the first pass. You get the benefit of the doubt.Q: Something I noticed you two have in common, in both of your books, is what I guess you’d call the “exposition shot.”
AF: The Splash Page?
Q: Is that what it’s called? In Kid Beowulf, you’ll have almost four panels of just the village, and you get the idea, it’s almost like a camera panning across the landscape before it comes into the house.
AF: Yeah, it’s intentionally supposed to be cinematic. It’s a style that’s called decompressed storytelling. If you look at early comics, what takes us maybe four panels to set the mood and tone of the scene—whether going to a village, or a tank going across a forest, where you can zoom in on the treads and come back—they would do that in one panel. And they would actually describe it, they’d say: “tank crushes the debris.” We describe it visually, and you can get so much more in terms of sensory perception, or in setting the mood and tone. That’s happening a lot in the last 20 years, a lot of decompressed storytelling. So you have a lot of panels…
TA: You stretch out the moment.
AF: You have a lot of panels without any dialogue. You have the scene take the reader where you want it to go. A lot of it is what we call cinematic storytelling.
TA: Even for radically different subject matter, you’ll see the same storytelling tricks. You’re still speaking the same language, even if you’re telling a totally different story. There’s definitely a language of comics, and a certain vocabulary that people use. Some people try to deconstruct it, or subvert it in some way, or create their own, or make comics that are more difficult to read. Some people use it as the elements of storytelling that are established.
AF: I would say that our styles are… have you read this book, Making Comics? There’s a part of it that I was reading today, where he talks abut our styles, specifically. He kind of breaks up the world of comics into four different categories…
Q: “The Classicist,” “The Animist,” “The Formalist,” “The Iconoclasts.”
AF: …and this is Scott McCloud, so sometimes he can get a little too theoretical. But this, it made sense to me, because I can see myself very much as a classicist and an animist—someone who works with the traditions of comic storytelling and it’s all in service of the story I’m telling. Whereas, what little I know of your work, I can get the sense that you’re maybe more of an Iconoclast and a Formalist, in that you’re working with the medium, of “What is comics?,” and how can you bend and stretch it?
TA: Yeah, playing with the tools. Maybe a little bit of a classicist too, because there’s a lot of things in my book that are homages to classic storytelling. They’re just in very different formats. So like the very first story is done in this Popeye style, this bendy cartoony style. Or the familiar “fight cloud,” except in this case it’s a sex cloud. It’s a familiar thing, this thing that people see immediately, this cloud of things.Q: What draws you two to using pen on paper as opposed to a Syntique? I guess this is the “computer question.”
AF: I use the computer basically as a tool for finishing the book, it’s definitely a necessity. I need it for doing my books, but it’s not a beginning point.
TA: It’s a tool, but not the tool.
Q: It seems like you have to use a computer for the print setup. You can’t—well, maybe you could find a printer somewhere to send your original pages off to get printed.
AF: Get some old guy, some cranky dude.
TA: They’d probably just farm it out to somebody with a computer anyways. A lot of the stuff that I see on the computer, to me, it reads like information graphics to me. It’s very sterile. The reason that I put pen to paper, the appeal—it’s a very simple question, but it cuts to the reason why you even do it at all. One of the things that I like about comics is that they blur the line between language and art. I like cartoonists whose drawing is like their handwriting. They’ve drawn so much that it’s a part of them, and it just flows out of them They draw their characters like they write their own name. That’s why you live with your tools and you work with them all the time, so you get the facility. I remember when I tried to play music, I never had the discipline to sit down and practice the bass, but I did find that I got better just by having the bass in my hands all the time. Just hanging out with it. I never played scales or anything, but I did get better just by living with it. On a conceptual level, the thing I like about comics is that it plays with that line between image and language. You write with pictures.
AF: The thing I love about it is that you look at a comic book page or a cartoonists’ work, and you may have never met them before, but their personality is on the page. Everything about them is on that page. You can dissect it and figure out how they think, and what they’re striving for. It’s really compelling to look at someone’s specific style, and you can deconstruct who that person is. That’s what all art is, to a certain degree. You listen to Kind of Blue and you can get a sense of what Miles Davis is all about. Sure, I’m doing stories about knights and faraway mythological places, but behind that is basically how I look at the world. This is just the vehicle for showing that. That’s what’s exciting about comics to me.
Q: And doing it on the computer doohickey…
AF: The Syntique?
Q: Yeah… it wouldn’t allow the reader to see a more honest expression of who you are?
AF: Maybe. There are those who are advocates of the technology, and I don’t know it well enough to criticize it too much. But walking down the hallway here, with the strips, and you can see what was going on—seeing the paste-up, and the messed-up lines, and the underlayer—that’s far more exciting to me than seeing a perfect, pristine printout.
TA: I’m sure somebody can, and will, do a great comic using those tools. But to me, it seems like trying to reinvent the wheel. In some sense, you’re farming out your work to whoever programmed the program. It’s lines of code retranslating your drawings into the code, and then back out of the code into a reproduction.
AF: Some of the magic is lost. I remember doing this sketch for my three-year-old nephew. He wanted me to draw Peter Pan in this crazy bar scene. He gave me the idea, and then he went off to a nap, and I started to draw it, and when he came back it was done. And to see what he wanted me to draw, and then see it actually take place on the page—there was a real spark in his eye. That’s why I do it. You have a blank piece of paper, and then after a few hours, and of course years of trying to figure out how to do it right, you can come away with this great piece of artwork that’s never been done before. It’s fluid, and alive, and it bounces off the page.
TA: The style and the medium isn’t separate from the content. There’s a conceit with digital things where it’s like, “You have this great idea! And all you need is something with a lot of computer power to translate that great idea, to get it over the hump of creation into reality!” And it’s like, no. Creation is where the idea takes shape. How you do it is as important as what you end up doing. What I decide to draw is influenced by how I draw and the style I work in. When I did this most recent book, one of the things it’s about is the euphemisms and symbols that people use for sex and violence, and how we use the same profanities and symbols for both sex and violence. Comics is all about using symbols and iconography, and making these logical leaps. So you can’t separate the medium from the message.Q: What’s it like to have upcoming appearances here at the Schulz Museum, with the heavy weight of the name? I mean, Lex, you work here, and Trevor, you’ve lived in Santa Rosa all your life, so maybe some of the allure has run a little thin.
TA: But it’s a very powerful identity to associate yourself with. You’re being associated with such an icon.
AF: I doubt we would be cartoonists if it weren’t for Peanuts. I know it wasn’t one of the three influences I named, but that’s only because Peanuts was always there. I was drawing Charlie Brown, I knew Snoopy, they were a part of my upbringing.
Q: It’s like the Beatles of the comic world or something.
AF: Yeah, and every cartoonist, whether they know it or not, owes a debt of gratitude for what Schulz did for the medium—just the idea that you could make a living from it, and a good living, is something that I think Sparky and some of those other guys were able to give us. That glimmer of hope.
Q: Trevor, you grew up here. Did you ever meet Charles Schulz?
TA: I never had a Charles Schulz encounter. I think the closest thing I ever came to a Charles Schulz encounter was my mom tailgating him once.
Q: Oh yeah, “WDSTK1”! That was his license plate!
TA: That's right! So the only personal encounter I’ve had with him has been through the museum, and the estate, and Jean Schulz. I feel like they’ve done a good job of carrying on not the letter, but the spirit of his work. They could have turned it into a gift shop and a boutique, and said, “The Peanuts characters are all that Peanuts is.” Instead, they made a decision to say no, that this was part of a continuum. That he was a cartoonist, and we’re opening our doors to other cartoonists. It’s an act of solidarity on their part, which I think is pretty admirable. The organization and the estate is such that they really could rest on their laurels. Instead, they’re throwing their lot in with people who might not do comics just like Charles Schulz, and that actually is pretty faithful to him. Underneath his buttoned-up golfer persona, from what I know of him, he had very Catholic tastes, and was a very sophisticated man. Humble and conservative, but sophisticated. I remember hearing a story about how Robert Crumb actually came to visit Charles Schulz one time, when he was in the area.
Q: That seems crazy to me!
TA: I know.
Q: Probably in this very room!
TA: Yeah, and Robert Crumb is probably the farthest extreme from Charles Schulz, just the most demented stuff. And he went to visit Charles Schulz, and Charles Schulz said, “Oh, I know your work, you’re a great drawer.” He stunned Robert Crumb. Robert Crumb did not expect it at all, he thought Charles Schulz would just sweep him out the door with a broom or something. I think that in that sense, there’s something intimidating about being associated with the Schulz Museum because the identity is so strong, but I feel like it definitely helps other cartoonists—and being associated with a range of cartoonists helps out the legacy of Charles Schulz.
Q: You get this sense from Peanuts that it’s this very feel-good warm strip about children, and I always imagined that Charles Schulz would be a conservative guy.
AF: Since I’ve been here, and since they started to reprint the Fantagraphics books, I’ve been going through it year by year. It’s a strip that deserves to be rediscovered. Because it is so good, and because he was doing some incredibly witty and downright funny stuff. That whole “Happiness is a Warm Puppy” thing, that’s maybe an eighth of what Peanuts is really about.
TA: It’s like people only knowing about Elvis from the Las Vegas show.
AF: There’s so much nuance to the strip. That whole idea of looking at someone’s work and figuring out their personality, it’s all right there in the strip. Everything that he is. We read them every morning, and he’s got a hell of a batting average. There’s never really a dud. You can read 20 in a row, and maybe one strip falls short. But it’s still a chuckle! And reading them chronologically, the way it transforms from this really straight-up four-panel gag-oriented comic strip, and then in the last 20 years he gets into this very weird Zen thing, it definitely takes on a different mood. It makes perfect sense that there’d be a museum dedicated to it.
All images above © 2008 Trevor Alixopulos and Alexis Fajardo.
Since when do novels have their own YouTube videos? Call me Rip, but I've evidently just awakened from a 40-year nap to discover that not only is my beard outta line but that such as New York author Jami Attenberg, whose second novel, The Kept Man centers on the lonely life of Jarvis Miller, the wife of a famous painter who fell from a ladder and knocked himself into a coma some six years before the book begins, has a moody hipster video to accompany it. It's brilliant promotion but strangely unsettling all the same.